In just over a decade we have seen some of the world’s most popular startups—Uber, Spotify, Slack, Instagram, Airbnb—build themselves up into some of the most powerful global corporate brands. And for all of these companies, the jump to becoming some of the most recognizable corporate brands in the world has happened in such a relatively short amount of time that it’s almost easy to forget they were even newly formed startups not too long ago.
If you’re at a startup—especially if you are one of the founders of said startup—it can be a daunting (sometimes it can even feel like a hopeless) challenge: How do you gain traction in your market when you’re not only competing against legacy companies with far greater scale and far greater name recognition, but also trying to separate yourself from other startups that are aiming for the same market share and investment dollars as your firm? You look at a company like Uber, which completely upended the taxi industry across multiple continents and has seen its brand name become a verb similar to how Google’s did—e.g. I’m just going to Uber it—and it can almost seem inconceivable that the San Francisco-based company officially launched its service a mere eight years ago.
And when you consider the success stories of companies like Uber and Spotify and Airbnb, you may want to zero in on how they’ve effectively marketed their brand, assuming their brands grew so big so quickly through a genius marketing strategy. But Leonard Sherman, an adjunct professor at the Columbia Business School, cautions startups with conflating branding and marketing and seeing both as being “costs associated with promoting a product after it’s been launched.”
Writing for Entrepreneur magazine, Sherman points out the importance that “brand strategy should play during the concept-to-market stage” of your product or service. Says Sherman:
In short, branding should be the forcing function to make defining decisions about every aspect of a company's launch strategy. Hard calls need to be made on the appropriate target markets, pricing, positioning, branding, product, packaging and digital design, sales channel focus, customer support, messaging, marketing, and media placement.
In other words, Sherman believes your branding strategy—unlike your marketing strategy—should be put into motion before your product is even built.
When you are developing your brand strategy, you’re obviously thinking about the message you’re trying to convey about your product(s). You have an idea about what you want the user experience to be like, feel like, and what you hope your users will like about your product. Your branding will therefore likely emphasize your product’s UX, especially since the UX will largely decide how people view your brand.
But if your brand’s identity is so deeply intertwined with how users experience your product, it probably makes sense to have a pretty good idea about how that user experience actually plays out before you try to build brand awareness. Just like movie studios will do a test screening before the wide release of a movie to get a sense of whether an audience is sharing in the director’s vision, you really need to get feedback on your product to see whether the user experience you want people to have is actually what they’re experiencing.
Warns Kevin Barber, Head of Growth at Lean Labs:
If you launch your brand based upon what you assume your customers will love, you're taking a risk that your brand won't resonate with its target market. Failure to connect with customers causes startups to flounder.
What trips up many startups, Barber adds, is they “mistakenly focus on brand identity and awareness when they should first focus on brand experience.” For instance, when you try to improve your UX without actually getting user feedback, it “often leads to fine tuning things that customers don’t care about,” according to Barber.
The famous media mogul Sumner Redstone coined the phrase “content is king,” by which he meant that content would always be more important than the distribution channel through which it is delivered—whether it’s network television, cable television, movie theaters, etc. (Redstone coined this phrase in the early ‘90s before the internet took hold, but his point obviously holds true for digital media as well.)
For designers, a similar edict to Redstone’s iconic line can be used; but in this case it would be product is king. Because no matter whether you’re building an app or website or whatever, if the product is subpar—or there is just not a sufficient market for your product—it’s a fairly safe bet that no amount of brand awareness is going to help your product gain traction.
Andrew Chen, a general partner at Silicon Valley venture capital giant Andreesen Horowitz, even goes so far as to say branding for startups is essentially useless. According to Chen, the way a startup builds a great brand is “by being successful, finding product market fit and scaling traction, etc.”
Sounds simple enough, yes? Here’s Chen expounding on his point:
It’s easy to confuse correlation and causation: If you’re starting a consumer startup, you see successful late stage cos with fawning media coverage, amazing conference speaking slots, celebrities on the cap table, etc., and think that’s what caused their success: Great brand.
But great brand is the lagging indicator of success. The buzz is created by the hard work that the entrepreneurs put in: Finding product/market fit, hiring a great core team, finding acquisition channels that scale. Brand marketing is great, but it should be layered on later.
Now, Chen isn’t wrong to note that brand marketing “should be layered on later” in your process; but if you keep in mind the lesson from Columbia Business School’s Leonard Sherman—that a brand strategy includes marketing and everything from pricing to digital design to messaging, etc.—then you can better understand why your brand strategy should be in place from the outset.
And this is also why you can’t confuse your brand strategy with marketing. While your brand marketing will always be crucial to creating awareness about your new product once it’s launched, your brand strategy should be developed while you’re still building your product; ultimately, the success of your product and the success of your brand are one and the same.